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Save systems

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Recently I played Grand Theft Auto IV (2008), I had never played it when it originally came out, and with the complete edition on PC I thought this was a nice time to check it out. But unfortunately, it has one of those annoying save systems: to save, you have to go to your house, go to your bed and sleep in it. This passes time (I think 6 hours) and saves the game. Also (luckily) there are auto saves, I think only after completing a mission.

I personally hate such a save system, and almost any "alternative" save system which is not allowing you to save at any moment in any place. It is disrespectful to the (often precious) time of the player. Imagine the GTA4 save system again, and you're halfway a 30 minute mission and you get a call and have to go. You cannot save, so next time you have to spend those 15 minutes that you just did again. On the other hand, let's say you're done with your gaming session and want to quit. Well with the absence of exit saves, you have to spend the time to go to your house to save your game (luckily that's relatively quick with the use of taxis in this game, which act like fast travel for a small cost), time which you could have spent playing a bit more, or doing something else. Sure, it's not a lot of time, but it all adds up and especially if a game is 50-100 hours long and divided into many separate play sessions, you may spend a significant amount of time on this save routine, or replaying (parts of) missions.

I wish this was just something that "old games" did, ie. that GTA4 did because it's an older game, but that's fixed in GTA 5 (2013; which it is in part; you can quick save almost anywhere as long as you're not on a mission). However, my first encounter with quick saves was in the original Half-Life (1998). Though probably it has been used in earlier games as well.

My perfect save system exists of 4 separate parts:

  • An easy to issue "quick save" (eg. just one key press, such as in Half-Life or more recently The Witcher 3)

  • Some way to create a "manual save", for example to mark some important step in your game (like before a game-defining choice or a big battle, etc)

  • Automatic saves, either periodically (such as Factorio does) or right before/after important events (such as GTA4)

  • Exit saves, an explicit save entry when you exit the game, which is automatically loaded next time you start the game again (one example is Fallout 4). Nothing is more frustrating than exiting a game only to find out hours of progress are lost because the game did not have any auto save of exit save type of feature.

That way, you give the player an easy way to save, control over when they would like to save, and a simple way to store the game's state when exiting and continuing where you left off next time. Especially nowadays (with the risk of using a current year argument), after many decades of gaming evolution, I think it's inexcusable for games to have different save systems. It is offensive and disrespectful to gamers to implement anything else (of course exceptions apply, see further).

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Of course, there are games where you can argue that such save systems don't belong. One example is survival and building games where only having an auto save or exit save is the norm (think Minecraft, Terraria, Subnautica). In those games, you build something "permanent" in the world, so "going back" (ie. loading a save file) is against the intention of the game. If you accidentally screw something up (eg. set off some explosives in your base) you are expected to fix it by playing the game (eg. rebuild your base) and not by loading a previous state of the game. Well, I know plenty of people who make periodic backups of their save games just for these kinds of issues. If something catastrophic happens and they think fixing it will take too long, they will just restore a backup and continue from there again. In effect, creating their own save system on top of the (broken) game's save system.

In such games, the developer makes a choice to take away (or rather, not grant) a player freedom to enforce their own play style vision onto the players. While this is probably fine for the majority of players, it can also be restricting to a lot of other players who rather have that freedom than follow the developers' vision.

Probably the best example of where an extensive save system is inappropriate is games with a "hard core" mode, ie. permadeath, where when you die (or otherwise reach a failure state) your save game will be deleted. The whole thrill and excitement comes from the fact that there is no way back, only a way forward. And when you die, it's all over and no way to return to a previous state and continue on. I think this is the only real excuse to the "perfect save system" I have described above, in games where it otherwise would make perfect sense.

One could argue if games with a "1-up" system (like some of the Mario games for example) are a type of "hard core" game, just with more than exactly one life. Personally I dislike such games (as well as most games where a permadeath mode is mandatory and not a player choice) and would still much rather see a proper save system in those games. I never liked Mario myself (or even platformers in general), but if it had quick saves and quick loads I would probably be much more inclined to try it out some time. While I can understand that to some it might be thrilling to play knowing they only have a limited number of lives, I think that just because there are always also players who feel otherwise, it should always be a player choice/option, rather than the only way to play.

Naturally, there are plenty of games where an extensive save system just makes no sense at all, because of the type of game. For example, having quick saves in a racing or sports game would probably be silly (or would it?).

So what do you think, are you annoyed by some games' save systems? What save system do you hate the most and what does your perfect save system look like? Do you think it's excusable for certain games, game types, or genres to not include a full save system? Do you disagree with everything I wrote above?

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